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Lull between playoff games draws concern

WP: Long gaps appear to be hurting teams' performances
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Baseball's World Series is usually wrapped up in less than 10 days. The 301 medal ceremonies of the Olympic Games are completed in 16 days. So why should a best-of-seven series in the first round of the NBA playoffs last 18 days? Or last 19 days in the second round?

NBA fans, coaches and players -- even league commissioner David Stern -- have complained that this season's playoff schedule requires teams to take unusually long breaks between games, which can harm the level of play and perhaps dull a player's skills, say NBA insiders.

"You lose a little bit of an edge," said Pistons reserve center Elden Campbell. "You can practice, drill, scrimmage as much as you want to but it's nothing like game time."

Scheduling conflicts between TV networks and arenas were the major cause of creating prolonged gaps in between games, Stern said. This is also the second year that the NBA has played a best-of-seven series in the first round. Before that, they played a best-of-five. The result is an uneven schedule that sometimes has teams playing on two days rest and sometimes on more than a week.

The New Jersey Nets and Detroit Pistons began their conference semifinal series on May 3 and didn't square off again until four days later on May 7. The Pistons tied the series at 3 on Sunday but the seventh and deciding game won't be played until Thursday.

In the first round, it took the Miami Heat seven games and 17 days to finish off the New Orleans Hornets, which the Heat won four games to three. The Indiana Pacers completed a sweep of the Boston Celtics on April 25 and were idle for 11 days until meeting the Heat in the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

"We do have a little sitting," Stern said this month on ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike In The Morning" show. "We've got to tighten [the playoff schedule] up some . . . We're going to do better next year."

Stern said he doesn't believe extended breaks between games hurt player performance. But studies show that long lulls from competition erode an athlete's skills, says Bradley Hatfield, a professor of sports psychology at the University of Maryland.

"There is a fundamental difference between practice and competition," said Hatfield, who focuses on how the brain, body and behavior affect performance. "A drop-off occurs in physical and mental skills and even in the emotional state when athletes aren't competing."

Determining the exact reasons why a player misses shots or a team slips into a slump is nearly impossible, said Hatfield. But performing at a high level means an athlete must continuously make subtle adjustments to their game, much like cellists or violinists who tune their instruments after each piece of music they play, Hatfield said.

Few teams in this season's playoffs have hit as many sour notes as the Nets did in their 78-56 drubbing at the hands of the Pistons in the first game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. New Jersey entered the game on eight days rest while Detroit had four. The Nets scored the second fewest points ever in a playoff game and shot a franchise low 27.1 percent -- a dramatic drop off from the Nets' 44.1 percent regular season field goal percentage.

"The Nets had not played in more than a week. That's too long for a team to sit out," wrote the Detroit News. "They were rusty, out of sync and appeared fatigued early in the game."

Once the series resumed to a more normal schedule with no more than two days off between games, the Nets averaged 42.8 percent shooting over the next four games and won three of them.

Campbell, a veteran of 13 NBA seasons and 87 playoff games, has first-hand experience with fighting the after effects of a long lull. In 2001, while Campbell was with the Charlotte Hornets, his team was idle nine days after sweeping the Miami Heat in a first-round playoff series. In the second round, the sluggish Hornets were defeated by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first two games and eventually lost the series, 4-3.

"We weren't sharp," Campbell said. "It took us a couple of games to get back to a good point."

Just shifting the span between games could play havoc with an athlete's preparation, said Minnesota Timberwolves Coach Flip Saunders.

"When you're playing every other day, you've played that way for six months," said Saunders, whose team faces Sacramento in Game 7 of their Western Conference semifinal series, three days after playing Game 6. Previously in the series the teams played two games in three days in two different cities. "Now, all of a sudden you start the playoffs and you're sitting out for three days, two days and it's something you're not familiar doing."

However, long breaks also have their benefits. For teams with injured players, additional rest can give players time to heal. Rasheed Wallace, one of the Pistons' top players, is suffering from a sore foot that could benefit from the four days that his team has before Thursday's Game 7.

"At this time of year, we've had nine months of hard-driving basketball," said Pat Williams, the former general manager of the Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. "Could we not argue that a lot of healing takes place [during breaks]. These bodies are beaten up pretty good come playoff time."